September/October 2001
Misrepresentations of BDSM in Popular Culture
by Discord13

Expecting society to give blanket approval to any practice or orientation, especially a sexual practice or orientation, is folly. However, being a member of what has to be one of the most misrepresented sub-cultures in society, I have to object to what is a demonstrable history of misrepresentation, stereotyping and outright bigotry.

Societies can be studied, to an extent, by taking a look at their popular culture. It is in a society’s film, music, television and writings that many of its mainstream views can be observed. Take, for example, the number of films and television shows that deal with heterosexual, vanilla relationships. Whether or not the ratio of traditional to non-traditional partnering arrangements depicted on our small and big screens is accurate, it’s easy to asses how American society likes to see itself depicted: non-threatening, patriarchal and somewhat puritanical.

However negative the stereotypes of gays and lesbians in popular culture have been, there are at least a few examples of the aforementioned groups being cast in an accurate, compassionate and even positive light.

Sadomasochists can hardly say the same.

The least bigoted depiction of sadomasochism I’ve seen in popular cinema is probably “Payback”, the Mel Gibson vehicle in which Lucy Liu (at that time Lucy Alexis Liu) plays a dominatrix character who is funny and not significantly more corrupt than anyone else in the film. On the whole, however, sadomasochists get an undeserved bad rap.

“The General’s Daughter”, a predictable Hollywood industrial-movie-complex product in the thriller genre, provides an example of a popular notion in Hollywood: Sadomasochism is the result of sexual trauma. In the film the title character is discovered to be a dominatrix, an orientation she acquired due to the trauma of being gang-raped by a group of fellow soldiers. Although I’m male, I am a dom and have never experienced any sort of sexual trauma. Moreover, if I were to encounter an individual who was venting some sort of rage or indignation through sadomasochistic sex I would most certainly inform them that they needed help. I like to think that most of us in the BDSM community would do likewise.

Also in the thriller category we find the film “8mm” in which Nicholas Cage is hired to find out whether or not a “snuff” film discovered by a rich widow is a real depiction of a murder or just theatrical. Of course, the film really is a “snuff” film and guess who produced it? A sadomasochistic film director.

Murder is not among the sexual proclivities of healthy individuals and if this film portrayed the same scenario with gays or lesbians in the sadomasochist’s scapegoat role all hell would’ve broken loose; and justly so.

I could go on and on with the list of mainstream film that has used sadomasochism as a sure-fire indicator of a bad guy. “Pulp Fiction”, “Cruising” and “Basic Instinct” are only a few. This would simply emphasize an argument that really doesn’t need additional support, much less excessive amounts of it. Sadomasochists are horribly misunderstood, unfairly stereotyped and at are at risk of becoming outcasts if our desires are made public in certain circles. This is unfair, intolerable and simply the product of ignorance.

There are those in the sadomasochist community who are here only for the sake of experimentation and more power to them for it. However, there are also those of us in the sadomasochistic community whose orientation is almost, if not completely, focused on BDSM. It’s not a diversion for some of is, indeed, it is the core of our sexuality.

The tragedy is that certain segments of society cannot see the person around the sadomasochist. We become less than the sum of our parts as, to some, everything becomes irrelevant in the face of our orientation. For those of you with an ability to make historical connections, you’ll already have noticed that this is pretty much identical to the popular notion of homosexuality up until gays and lesbians started to organize and change that erroneous perception.

We can be prosecuted for assault in some jurisdictions for simply pleasuring ourselves and our partners in our preferred manner. We can be arrested, jailed, fined and subjected to social ostracism for the heinous crime of being ourselves. We are Hollywood’s ready-made targets for ridicule when we’re not portrayed as vicious sexual predators.

And none of this is going to change unless we do it for ourselves. There certainly has been more acceptance of the BDSM crowd among the mainstream of American society in recent years. Materials that were once only seen in the dungeons of doms and daddies such as vinyl and latex are now seen worn openly on the street. That’s a first step. We never liked that sort of thing because we’re weird, we like it because it’s sexy. The Goth crowd, especially the women (oh, the women) have made that which was formerly only attractive on horror movie bad-girls something even the most generic of basketball jersey-wearing frat boys drool over. But this is only the acceptance of our fashion-sense. What about our humanity?

The mainstream acceptance of BDSM will depend on its redefinition among those not involved in the scene. Currently, it’s most-often perceived as perversion with a brutal streak. In reality, it’s sex with a healthy dose of theater. It’s about time that people realized that and stopped portraying us as the universal bad-guy. All-in-all, we really don’t deserve it and we should stop taking it.